Wednesday, 14 November 2012
Devouring Books: The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling
I've been putting off writing a review for The Casual Vacancy for ages because I don't really know how to approach it. To mention Harry Potter (whoops!) or to sidestep it entirely? It seems unfair to bring it up, but then, would I (or anyone!) have massively wanted to read this if Harry Potter didn't exist? And so the questions come, and they CONFUSE MY BRAIN and that's not good.
Here's what I'm going to say. It's unlikely that anyone would have been that bothered about reading The Casual Vacancy if it hadn't been 'by the author of Harry Potter,' but I think it would have been a real shame if no one had. Because it's good. It really is. It's not the greatest thing ever written or anything and *takes a deep breath* it'snotasgoodasHarryPotter, BUT it's engaging, the characters, both the ones you love and hate, feel real, and above all, learning that JK is a MASSIVE Socialist was basically the best thing ever.
Plus, it made me cry. Which almost always means a book is good. Except for the monumentally emotionally manipulative The Book Thief. But anyway.
I think certain of the criticisms I've seen of The Casual Vacancy have been entirely valid- it does have kind of a slow start, for example, but this was somewhat evened out for me by the second half, during which I could not put the book down! And then I sort of appreciated the slower start which lets you get your head around all the characters (and there are A LOT of characters. Another criticism? Maybe, but I liked that) before you're plunged into the emotional maelstrom of the story proper, which may also be known as the most depressing story ever told. Which, obviously, I liked.
A criticism I can't really get on board with is the 'omg, there was swearing, ummmm!' one. Because, I get the 'she's just being gratuitous and trying to break away from her childrens book author image' argument, but really? The characters who mainly swear are those with a lower socioeconomic status, and teenagers, both of which are maybe the two demographics who are going to swear the most, and without any swearing, I feel like their conversations would have been inauthentic. And besides, who doesn't fucking LOVE swearing?! But all of this is really beside the point.
With the story itself, I was reminded, kind of perversely, of Twin Peaks. Bear with me for a second here. So, David Lynch, I believe, has said that the 'Who killed Laura Palmer' basis to Twin Peaks was essentially a macguffin to allow him to explore and develop relationships between characters in the small town setting. I feel like this is what Rowling has done here with Barry Fairbrother's death, and the subsequent election to his seat on the local council. Whilst there's no mystery about how his death happened (it's a fairly straightforward aneurysm) everything in the story emanates from that one event, and through it, we get a really clear idea of who each of these characters are, the alliances they hold, and, crucially, whether or not I actually like them.
And, to be fair, most of them I do, and even the ones I don't like, most of them I understand. In fact, the character I maybe related most to was one I didn't necessarily like all that much, but once it was revealed that she was essentially a woman with broken dreams and a sense of disappointment over how her life has turned out, all of her behaviour somehow became very clear to me. And I feel like this is something that doesn't happen all that often- relating to characters you don't even like- and I think Rowling has done an excellent job of teasing out every piece of information about every character, so that you know exactly who you're dealing with. It's kind of special.
So, The Casual Vacancy is not Harry Potter, and if you only wanted to hear that it was then I think your expectations for any of Rowling's future works are pretty unfair. Because this isn't Harry Potter, but, like the adventures of the boy wizard, it might just make some readers feel less alone, and more understood. While Harry Potter was a beautiful escape from reality, The Casual Vacancy is maybe a little bit too real, and hits a little too close to home, at least for this reader. But that's almost exactly what I want from a book. So, well played, JK. Well played.
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I've been dancing around this book ever since it came out without being able to pick it up. I think because of the huge isitasgoodasHarryPotter elephant in the room. Glad you acknowledged that here. Brilliant review.ReplyDelete
Thank you! And yeah, I didn't really know HOW to talk about it without bringing up HP, so I did and got it over with. Glad you liked it :)Delete
Mmm, thanks for reviewing this book! I've yet to read it, mainly because I've been feeling weird about Rowling being the author of anything that was not Harry Potter. I've heard very many mixed reviews about it JUST BECAUSE OF THAT, and so I appreciated your sentiments.ReplyDelete
Plus, you brought up Twin Peaks. So you now rule in my book :)
Ugh, I can't deal with reviews that are JUST like 'This isn't as gooood as Harry Potter'. Cause I'm like 'yes, I agree... But it's still good, can we talk about that please?'Delete
TWIN PEAKS IS THE GREATEST THING IN THE HISTORY OF EVER! :D
OK! This REVIEW is my favorite. Favorite. Favorite. Seriously.
I had a really hard time reviewing this one for so many reasons that didn't really have to do so much with this lady wrote Harry Potter but more WTF. So there was that. But I completely agree. She builds a cast of characters in such an authentic light, albeit they're all quite negative (maybe a little over the top in some situations), and really created a realistic town that struggles with the everyday. I have yet to see Twin Peaks, so thank you for the 1000th reminder that it's something that needs to be done.
I enjoyed the book, but agree it wasn't the best thing ever written, and also agree that people probably wouldn't have jumped on it like they did if had been written by a no name. (The premise is actually quite boring when you first take a look at it.)
YAY! And thanks!Delete
Oh yeah, I think there's definitely some over the top-ness in the badness of her characters (but wasn't there in Harry Potter too? There definitely was) and it's not at all a perfect book, or the best thing I've ever read or ANYTHING, but it's good enough to be discussed in it's own light, and it's still pretty good! I didn't feel like I'd wasted my time reading it, let's put it that way.
WATCH TWIN PEAKS! It's so so so good :)
I was totally hoping to love this book, and while of course I wanted to read it b/c I loved HP, I knew it wasn't going to be similar in anyway. Buuuutt... I couldn't make it past the first 120 pages or so. I was just so bored, and I still didn't really care about any of the characters and still trying to remember who was connected to who, and ehhh. I bought my copy and it's still on my shelf, so maybe I'll come back to it someday. I'm glad that you enjoyed it though :)ReplyDelete
Duuuude, I know what you're saying about the characters in those first 100 pages, because it's completely like 'what's going on? Who ARE all you people? WHY IS NOTHING HAPPENING?' and actually, now that I think about it, I'm thinking that maybe JK was so used to working with a MASSIVE cast in HP that she was like 'I want LOADS of characters!' but that maybe didn't work so well in a single book?Delete
ANYWAY- I'm going to say you quit just at the wrong time because characters were about to DO STUFF and THINGS were going to happen and it all just got very good. And now you're going to have to read the boring pages again if you want to read the story! Noooooooo! But for reals, I hope you do give it another try, cause I really think it is good!
Ok with your review I'm more likely to read this. I mean, I sorta wanted to read it anyway but I wanted to see what others thought of it. Cos the traditional reviews sort of suck. And not in a "this book is bad" way but in a "we can't focus on the story and instead will go on and on about how this isn't HP". And as you pointed out, that is unfair of a review to just look at that.ReplyDelete
IT IS SO UNFAIR I HATE IT HATE IT HATE IT! Seriously, I've been upfront and said that it's not as good as HP, but we can move on from this, yes? MOST things aren't as good as HP, let's be honest, but they don't get that shoved into their reviews, do they?!Delete
Sorry. But yeah, it's a good little read, give it a try!
Hahahaha, that would be fantastic. "Room was good, but it wasn't as good as Harry Potter."Delete
I think this is going to be my next review: "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is great, but it's not Harry Potter."Delete
Maybe I can work Harry Potter into allllllll my reviews now...
Great review! I agree it's not as good as HP, but it's also unfair to compare the two. I liked The Casual Vacancy well enough, but it's definitely not a favorite among the other fiction I've read this year.ReplyDelete
Also - just curious - when did you cry? Was it the end where I think it probably was, or someplace else?
That's fair enough! I... Yeah, I don't know if I'd say it's a FAVOURITE of this year, but it's definitely not down at the bottom with all the Historical Fiction I keep accidentally reading haha.Delete
I did cry at the end! When the THING happened. And then I pretty much just carried on crying until the very end. IT WAS SO SAD!
I agree x1000.ReplyDelete
I feel like the bad reviews this got were more about punishing JKR for daring to write something new than about really assessing the book. It definitely had flaws (slow starter, too many characters introduced at once), but it was overall a really nice novel. Plus, I love that JKR was all, "Yeah, I'm richer than the queen but rich/entitled people suck, etc." You should watch her interview on Jon Stewart about this book if you haven't already -- she kills it.
Definitely the punishing thing! Like 'Oh, well, this isn't Harry Potter', and that's basically it. THIS IS NOT A REVIEW OF THIS BOOK. And yeah, it's not perfect, but I liked it! Plenty!Delete
YESSSSSSSSS to JK's Socialism. She rocks. I SHOULD watch her interview on Jon Stewart *runs off to youtube*
Yay!!! I'm glad to see another positive review of this one - I was starting to feel like mine was the only one in the world! I honestly went into the book thinking I would hate it, that maybe I wouldn't even finish it, but I ended up really enjoying it. It reminded me a lot of Tom Perotta's suburban fiction, or even of old Emile Zola's grinding realism, and I'm really glad Rowling was able to pull it off well.ReplyDelete
Ooooh, it IS like Tom Perotta, isn't it? I didn't really think of that, but... Yeah. Definitely! *clings onto you as a fellow CV lover in a sea of bad vibes* *or something*Delete
This is a really fair review, Laura. I bought it pretty much right away when it came out, and it's sat on my shelf since. I'm nervous to pick it up, because I'm worried I won't be able to get HP out of my head. I'm excited to read it. I've just got to make sure I'm not *too* excited.ReplyDelete
Just, like, pretend it's by someone else, power through the first... bit, and then enjoy! You'll be fine.Delete
But it's not Harry Potter. Just so you know.
I got to around page 100 and realized that I needed a character map or something. I returned the book to the library for the time being and fully intend to pick it up again sometime soon.ReplyDelete
I agree that it did start slow, but realized that I found the most engaging characters to be the teenagers. I also loved that most (if not all) of the characters are connected in some way. I can't wait to finish it.
Duuuude, I made a character map for my friend, but I think I threw it away... I could have sent it to you!Delete
And yeah, the connections are the BEST because you kind of get to see a whole map of the people emerging and it's like 'ohhhh, so that's how she found that out, and OMG they're going out?' etc etc etc. So yeah, finish ittttt, you'll love it!/be made sad by it but still go 'ooh, I like it'. Hopefully.